by David Kyle Johnson
Star Trek: Mission Log is a podcast, hosted by John Champion and Ken Ray (and produced by Rod Roddenberry), in which they endeavor to give meaningful commentary and feedback on every single Star Trek episode and movie that ever existed (including The Animated Series). Although interesting trivia, fun poking and hilarious jokes are always on the menu, the main goal of the podcast is to examine the “morals, messages, and meanings” of every Star Trek episode, one at a time. I am a lifelong trekker. I remember the very first moment of seeing my first episode as a child (The Original Series’ “Spectre of the Gun”); I recorded, collected and cataloged (on VCR) every episode as a teenager; my friends and I had a 24 hour marathon when The Next Generation (TNG) ended in ’95; and I have multiple Enterprises and a 3-dimensional chess set on display in my collegiate office. I discovered the Mission Log podcast when they were about half way through The Original Series (TOS); I quickly caught up and have been loving keeping up every week since. So far they have covered The Original Series, The Animated Series (TAS), the first six movies, and they just started on The Next Generation.
I enjoy the cast immensely. I even watch the episodes along with John and Ken, and so far I have done so without feeling the need to comment. But Mission Log’s 105th episode provided fodder for a few philosophical lessons that I just couldn’t pass up. In it, John and Ken covered the first season TNG episode, “Hide and Q” (one of my favorites), where the seemingly omnipotent entity Q shows up and whisks away most of the bridge crew to play a “deadly game”—a game the purpose of which is to test Commander Riker and see if he is worthy of “a gift beyond any human dream.” Q gives Riker “the power of the Q,” making him able to accomplish anything by sheer will, in an attempt to get Riker to join the Q continuum. The episode ends with Riker attempting to use his power to grant his friends their ultimate wish; Riker in turn rejects Q’s offer when Riker’s friends reject his.
What primarily got my attention was Ken’s commentary on what he took to be the moral of the story. I hate to pick on Ken—he’s a great host—but he got it totally wrong. But before we get to that, a little setup is in order.
A Lesson in Logic
The first opportunity in the podcast for a philosophical lesson occurred when Ken accused Data of embracing a logical contradiction—one that should have made his positronic brain ooze out his ear. (I’m paraphrasing.) When Q whisks most of the bridge crew off to some twin-mooned planet to play his “deadly game,” Data observes that “considering the power demonstrated by Q the last time,” during their encounter at Farpoint, they could be “anywhere—assuming this place even exists.” But how can Data be standing on a planet, which he couldn’t be standing on if it didn’t exist, and yet consider the possibility that it does not exist? This, Ken insists, is illogical nonsense.
But it is standard practice in philosophy—and should be in regular life—to employ what is known as “the principle of charity.” Before we condemn anyone of saying something wrong or contradictory, or of making a bad argument, we need to consider whether there are alternate (more charitable) interpretations of what they said that are perhaps not so outlandish or obviously foolish. So, before accusing Data of embracing a logical contradiction, we need to determine whether there is a more charitable interpretation of his statement that is not logically contradictory.
So that is philosophy lesson #1. And indeed, I believe there is a better alternate interpretation of Data’s statement. Realizing what it is brings us to philosophy lesson #2.
People often accuse Plato of a similar contradiction. Plato believed in the “Realm of Forms”—a collection of perfect abstract objects that physical objects “participate in” to be the objects that they are. For example, the Realm of Forms contains a perfect abstract chair—and all things in this world we call chairs are chairs because they resemble (participate in) that Form. Think of the Realm as a kind of “idea heaven,” where there is a perfect example, in the form of an idea, of every possible thing there could be. Famously, Plato claimed that the Forms were “more perfectly real” than the physical objects that resembled them. But how could this be? How can an abstract object, which is really an idea, be more real than a physical object—something I can see, and taste and touch and even sit in or stand on. Indeed, how can something like “being real” occur in gradations? Either something is real, or it’s not, right? How can one thing be more real than another?
Unraveling this puzzle relies on realizing that the word “real” is ambiguous—it has multiple senses or definitions. The word “real” may refer to whether something exists (e.g., Ken Ray is real, Santa is not) or to whether something is genuine or natural. For example, one might say that plastic flowers are not real, even though they clearly exist. So when Plato says that the Forms are more perfectly real than the physical objects that resemble them, he is not saying that they “exist more” than physical objects—but that they are “more genuine.” If you want to know what flowers are actually like, you don’t look at a fake plastic one, you check out the real McCoy. (Insert your own “Bones” joke here.) Likewise, for Plato, if you want to know what justice is, you don’t look at just actions, but consider the Form of justice itself.
It seems to me—and in fact this is how I have always interpreted Data’s statement—that Data is doing something similar with the word “exists,” which is also ambiguous. In fact, its alternate meanings resemble very much the alternate meanings of “real.” For example, members of the TNG crew often say that holodeck projections don’t “exist,” even though they are made of matter, take up space, can kill you if the safety protocols are off, and be fallen in love with (e.g., Riker, Geordi, and Lwaxana Troi). When one tells a holodeck projection that it doesn’t exist, one is not engaged in a logical contradiction—one is utilizing an alternate definition of the word “exist.” In the same way, Data is wondering whether or not the planet on which Q has put them “exists”—whether it is genuine or natural. They could be on any one of the billions of planets that already existed in the universe before Q whisked them away, or Q might have created a planet specifically for them as a game board. If the latter is true, the planet they are on does not really “exist”—at least, not in the same way that other natural or genuine planets do. So Data’s statement, when interpreted charitably, is not logically contradictory at all.
Now, I think that is a fun logical point, and something good to know about Plato. But this will actually help straighten out something else Data says later on in the episode—so hold on to that thought.
Ken’s Pet Peeve
Both John and Ken are big Trek fans (one would have to be to host Mission Log), but Ken has a pet peeve with the show that has been a point of contention in quite a few episodes of the podcast. Occasionally, The Original Series had episodes where the moral of story was, as Ken puts it: “The best thing a person can do is struggle.” Or, “it’s not good to be perfectly happy; you have to work and toil.” For example, anytime Kirk and the gang ever came across a planet or society that had all of their needs provided or were living perfectly content lives, Kirk would decide for them that “that is no way to live,” and destroy the means by which they had attained their utopia—causing them to once again struggle to survive and live. This happened in, for example, “This Side of Paradise” and “The Apple” and was most certainly a lesson of “I, Mudd.” As Scotty and McCoy said to the androids offering them a contented life in the latter episode:
MCCOY: You offer us only well-being.
SCOTT: Food and drink and happiness mean nothing to us. We must be about our job.
MCCOY: Suffering, in torment and pain. Laboring without end.
SCOTT: Dying and crying and lamenting over our burdens.
BOTH: Only this way can we be happy.
The idea is that struggling is good, for its own sake. It’s better to always want than to have, and you should never have anything just handed to you—you have to earn everything through suffering because suffering is virtuous. This drives Ken crazy—and, I think, with good reason. Society will likely never reach a state where there is no want or need—where everyone is fed, safe, and is able to live their life as they wish in harmony with everyone else. But (as Ken has often pointed out), if we can’t even pretend in our fictional stories that reaching that state is a good thing—if, even when we see it in our fantasies, we “run from it”—then something is very wrong with us. After all, it’s very easy for those of us living in the first world, who have most of our needs met, to insist that work and toil for life’s necessities is needed. But how much do we really work and toil? Have we really earned the life we have? Have we done something more than those in third world countries who struggle to even eat or find potable water? What if aliens came down and told us that we had it too easy—that we weren’t working and toiling hard enough. What if they destroyed all our infrastructure, forcing every family to grow their own food to survive, in the name of living a life more in line with their values?
Although, apparently, I am the odd man out for agreeing with Ken on this (and I do want to make it clear that I am 100% on Ken’s side on this issue), I don’t want to mount a detailed defense of his position on this issue this time. On the contrary, in an effort to teach some more philosophical lessons, I want to offer some constructive criticism of how Ken went about defending this position during the Mission Log episode on “Hide and Q.”
Turning Down Riker
At the end of the episode, thinking it could do no harm, Riker offers to give every member of the bridge crew their greatest desire with his new powers. To Wesley: Adulthood. To Geordi: his sight. To Data: his humanity. To Worf: a good lay by a sexy Klingon woman. But each one, eventually, turns him down. According to Ken, they all do this because they are employing the dreaded assumption—thinking that instead of getting what they want, they should suffer for suffering’s sake. They should always want and never have; they should just accept their lot in life. And so, again, Ken makes the valid point that suffering for suffering’s sake is ridiculous.
The problem is, none of the crew members turn down Riker’s offer for anything like any of these reasons. How do I know? Because each is completely and unequivocally clear about their reason for turning Riker down—and none of the above reasons are mentioned. Worf, for example, turns down the prospect of sexy time with a Klingon mistress because she comes from a world that is “now alien” to him, and because he no longer has a “place for [sex] in [his] life.” Like Q, I have no idea what possessed him to draw that conclusion. And as we shall see later in the series, Klingon culture is not alien to him, and sex does have a place in his life. (He fathers a child.) But, nevertheless, these are the reasons he gives—and they have nothing to do with suffering for suffering’s sake or not “earning it.”
Ironically, this may be one case where something like that reasoning is legitimate. Suppose you love someone, but they don’t love you back. Suppose, however, that Q shows up and offers to make them love you. Would you take him up on it? Probably not, because you want them to love you on their own; if they don’t love you on their own, then it’s not genuine. You want their love to be “real,” not forced or fabricated. (Amanda Rogers learns a similar lesson, in True Q, when she uses the power of the Q to make Riker love her.) If they don’t love you, you have to earn it—perhaps by getting them to know you better—it can’t just be handed to you. Likewise, Worf might only want to have sex with someone who genuinely loves him, not someone who was created just for that purpose—who is forced to long for his Klingon loins. But, then again, what do I know about Klingon sex?
“Make Me the Way I Was. Please!”
Riker gives Geordi (who was born blind) his sight, but after (awkwardly) observing how beautiful Tasha is, he demands that Riker change him back. But, again, he doesn’t do this because he didn’t earn his sight. (After all, what would that even mean? His blindness is genetic.) And he doesn’t do it because he feels the need to suffer for suffering’s sake, or because he thinks he should just “accept his lot in life.” Instead, he says, it’s because “the price is a little too high for me and I don’t like who I’d have to thank.” It’s not clear whether it is Q or Riker that he thinks he would have to thank—so it’s not clear who he doesn’t “like.” But it is quite clear that he turns down the offer to avoid being in deep debt to someone he doesn’t like. I, myself, have turned down offers of money or favors for just this exact reason; I don’t want someone else to be able to lord it over me. As my mother might say, “Favors from some people are their way of gaining power over you.”
Ken insists that this can’t be Geordi’s reason because it is an illegitimate reason. To prove this, Ken quotes Bane, from The Dark Knight Rises, who refuses to do what the financier who bankrolled him wants upon request. “Hey, I’ve been bankrolling you!” the financier insists. “And you think this gives you power over me?” Bane replies. Bane refuses to let a favor from someone be a reason to let them lord it over him.
But as an argument for thinking that Geordi is actually refusing Riker’s offer of sight because “he didn’t earn it,” or because “he should just accept his lot in life and suffer for suffering’s sake,” this argument falls short for a few reasons. First of all, even if Geordi’s professed reasoning—”it’s too high a price”—is just a front, it doesn’t automatically follow that he is actually employing the “I didn’t earn it/I should suffer” reasoning. There are a whole host of other reasons that he might secretly have. Maybe, when it comes to it, he doesn’t want to give up the “super-sight” his visor gives him. Or maybe, now that he has seen it with his own eyes, he thinks his visor looks cool. A separate argument would be needed to draw the conclusion that he is employing the “I didn’t earn it reasoning”; yet neither Geordi, nor anyone else (including Ken), says anything to indicate that Geordi is employing that reasoning. To think that the “I didn’t earn it/I should suffer” reason is the only other option employs the fallacy of “false dichotomy”—thinking there are only two options, when in fact there are more.
Second, even if “it’s too high a price to pay” is an illegitimate reason, it doesn’t follow that that reason is not the reason that Geordi rejected Riker’s offer. People do things for illegitimate reasons all the time. You might try to convince someone not to do something by pointing out that their reason for doing it is bad; but you can’t establish that someone didn’t employ a reason by pointing out it was bad. For example, even though “they’re cute” is a really bad reason to have a baby, that doesn’t mean no one has ever decided to have a baby because they are cute. Ken’s reasoning here perhaps violates something like a converse of the “ought/is” rule. It is often suggested that you can’t derive what ought to be the case simply from what is the case; you can’t get an ought from an is. Conversely, you can’t derive what someone’s reason actually was, based on what their reason should have been. The fact that a reason is illegitimate doesn’t mean that reason wasn’t employed.
Now, if we knew that Geordi was the kind of person who would not employ such reasoning—either because it would be outside his character, or because he’s not stupid enough to employ an illegitimate reason—then I suppose we could know that his “too high a price” reason was just a front. But the thing is, not only is employing that reason not outside of Geordi’s character, but in fact it is a very good reason to turn down Riker’s offer.
To see why, let’s look at how Ken’s “Bane Analogy” breaks down. First of all, Bane is a super villain, and super villains are not likely to be bothered to feel twinges of guilt— or to feel obligated to return favors for that matter. Geordi, on the other hand, is a pretty gentle guy; he’s also smart and likely wants to avoid twinges of guilt and knows that he will feel obligated to return the favor. Anyone who has ever felt such an obligation, especially to someone they don’t like, can understand why it’s something to be avoided. So it seems that the “too high a price” reason is consistent with Geordi’s character. Secondly, Bane refusing to do what his financier wants him to do won’t “un-bankroll” him. The money has already changed hands. Now that they money has been given and spent, the financier really has no power over Bane. Q, on the other hand, could take away Geordi’s sight again with the wave of a hand; Q giving Geordi his sight really would give Q power over him. So, if Geordi wants to avoid this, in fact he should turn down Riker’s offer.
So, although it’s true that if Geordi was employing the “I didn’t earn it/I need to suffer” reasoning, Ken would have plenty to legitimately complain about, Geordi is not employing this reasoning. Ken is, so to speak, barking up the wrong tree.
When Riker offers to grant the android Data his most obvious and expressed desire – to be human – Data turns him down outright. Ken again complains that Data is employing the “I didn’t earn it/I should suffer” reasoning. But, once again, it’s quite clear that he is not. In fact, Data tells us exactly why he refuses.
RIKER: But it’s what you’ve always wanted, Data: to become human.
DATA: Yes, sir, that is true. But I never wanted to compound one [pause] illusion with another. It might be real to Q—perhaps even you, sir. But it would not be so to me. Was it not one of the Captain’s favorite authors who wrote, “This above all, to thine own self be true?” Sorry, Commander, I must decline.
Data, after a reluctant pause, is admitting that he thinks the possibility of him actually becoming human is an illusion. But he also does not want to compound that illusion with another. What illusion? The illusion that a “Q granted humanity” would be genuine or real. Data turns down Riker’s offer to make him human, not because he wouldn’t have suffered in his quest to earn it, or because he thinks he needs to (as Ken put it) “always want but never have.” Data refuses Riker’s offer because he wouldn’t consider humanity granted by Q’s power to be “real.” Others might even consider it real, but he would not—and that’s all that matters.
In fact, it seems that Data is employing reasoning similar to what he employed when speaking of the planet to which Q sent the bridge crew. If Q merely created that planet for the game, then that planet didn’t really exist – it wasn’t “real,” in the same way that characters on the holodeck are not real. Likewise, Data thinks his humanity would be an illusion—not real—if it were fabricated by Q.
Now whether this is true, and Q’s powers merely consist of creating illusions, is far from clear. At least at this point in the series, Q’s powers are not that well-defined. In fact, in “Hide and Q,” Captain Picard calls him a “flimflam man.” Regardless, this is clearly how Data views Q’s powers, and the fact that he would consider a “Q granted humanity” an illusion is the reason that Data turns Riker down.
It’s also not clear whether the possibility of Data becoming human really is an illusion. He certainly could not become a biological human being on his own, but “humanity” itself is another ambiguous term. Fans of the show know that Data eventually develops the ability to feel emotion, and that he sacrifices himself to save his shipmates in the closing scene of the last TNG movie, “Nemesis.” Some would argue that this act demonstrated that he had acquired his humanity.
Accepting Riker’s offer may have prevented Data from ever acquiring true or “real” humanity because, like genuine love, humanity may be something that Data does have to earn. Perhaps, only if he turns himself into something more like a human can it be said that he has attained humanity. Perhaps humanity is not like Geordi’s sight; regardless of how he gets it, if he can see, then he can see. But when it comes to humanity, perhaps the origin makes a difference. A humanity that is merely bestowed is not genuine. But even if Data wants the opportunity to struggle to earn his humanity for this reason, he is still not valuing that struggle for its own sake. Instead, it is a means to an end—the only way that he can accomplish his goal: to really, genuinely, be human. So, even then, he would not be endorsing the moral that is Ken’s pet peeve.
Following Your Own Path
The person closest to employing the “I didn’t earn it” reasoning is Wesley. Riker turns him into an adult because Wesley so often laments being looked over because he is a child, but Wesley concludes that it’s “too soon” for him to be an adult; instead he wants to get there on his own. Ironically, this is the one person whose reasoning Ken thinks is solid. Again, Ken is right – and mainly because, like everyone else, Wesley is not employing the “I need to suffer for suffering’s sake” logic. Wesley simply realizes that he’s not ready for adulthood, and he won’t be ready for it unless he gets there on his own–unless he “earns it,” so to speak. But, again, he doesn’t need to earn it because that will involve suffering, and suffering is always good. It’s because, in the process of growing up into adulthood, he will get the knowledge and maturity he needs to handle the powers and responsibilities of adulthood.
Something like this is the actual moral of “Hide and Q” – and it’s one that Ken overlooked, it seems, because he was concentrating so much on criticizing the notion of “suffering for suffering sake” (which, again, actually had nothing to do with the episode). In a conversation with Riker, Q reveals why he is trying to get Riker to join the Q continuum. Humans have a compulsion or hunger to improve themselves that those in the Q continuum lack and do not understand. This drive will actually cause humanity, in the distant future, to surpass even the power of Q. The continuum wants to prevent this by incorporating this hunger into the continuum, and to do this they want to incorporate Riker into the continuum. Captain Picard himself discovers this during his “Shakespeare-off” with Q.
PICARD: “Oh, I know Hamlet. And what he might say with irony, I say with conviction: ‘What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason. How infinite in faculty. In form and moving, how express and admirable. In action how like angel. In apprehension how like a god.’
Q: Surely you don’t see your species like that, do you?
PICARD: I see us one day becoming that, Q. Is it that which concerns you?
When Captain Picard is trying to warn Riker against using his powers, Picard hints at a point similar to Wesley’s:
How the hell do I advise you? You know the implications as well as I… What the Q has offered you has got to be close to immorality… If you are going to refuse his offer you must not allow yourself to use this power again. It’s too great a temptation for us at our present stage of development.
Although Picard is talking about Riker’s ability to resist the urge to use his powers, the “present stage of development” comment hints at the fact that—although having a Q type power is apparently something that humanity will one day grow into—humanity is not yet ready to wield that power. It seems that, just like Wesley, humanity has to grow up first before it’s ready for the responsibility of such powers. Those powers will come through a process of advancement (i.e., growing up), but that advancement will also develop the knowledge and maturity needed to wield those powers responsibly. So, like Wesley, humanity should just get there on its own.
But driving this point home is what Picard was doing when he authorized and supported Riker’s suggestion to try to use his powers to bring happiness to his friends. Perhaps the most confusing lines of the episode occur after everyone has rejected Riker’s offers, and he looks at Picard and says:
RIKER: How did you know, sir? I feel like such an idiot.
PICARD: Quite right. So you should.
What exactly did Picard know? What exactly did Riker learn? He learned that he is not ready to have such powers. That’s why he should reject Q’s offer: Riker has no idea how to use them responsibly or effectively. In fact, Riker having these powers is downright dangerous. If he doesn’t know how to improve the lives of those he knows best with his new powers, how could he do anything else with them but bumble around the universe causing trouble? This is not a situation in which, as Ray might put it, “there is no down side.” Because Riker skipped the process of developing those powers, he did not develop the knowledge of how to use them responsibly.
So the real moral of the story seems to be that unearned power is dangerous because, unless it is earned, it doesn’t come with the knowledge of how to use it properly. It has nothing to do with suffering for suffering’s sake, or accepting your lot in life. The moral is simply this: Don’t try to grow up too fast; it can be dangerous.
The Human Equation
It’s not clear, however, that this is the only reason Picard wants Riker to reject Q’s offer. As Ken suggests, Picard does seem to have a problem with Riker stepping outside the “org chart”—not being Picard’s subordinate anymore. Picard tries to assert his dominance numerous times. But Picard also makes a wager with Q on whether or not Riker will take up Q’s offer: if he does, Picard loses his command; if Picard wins, Q must never trouble humanity again. There is a lot at stake. But, most importantly, its humanity versus the Q continuum. Picard recognizes that losing Riker to the Q continuum means that they will gain humanity’s hunger for improvement; if so, humanity will forever be left in their wake. The long-term fate of the human race is also at stake.
The only other moral suggested by the writers appears when it becomes clear that the rest of the bridge crew is apprehensive about Riker:
PICARD: Perhaps they’re remembering the old saying, “Power corrupts…”
RIKER: “…and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Do you think I haven’t thought of that, Jean-Luc?
“Bonk, bonk on the head!” It was a discussion of this notion, along with the real moral of the story that I was looking forward to in the Hide and Q episode of Star Trek: Mission Log. Questions like:
• Is it really the case that absolute power corrupts absolutely, or does it only corrupt “except for when it doesn’t” (as John briefly suggested)?
• Is “growing up too fast” always dangerous?
• Does attaining power “the natural way,” always get you the knowledge you need to use it?
• It is possible that humanity really will one day be as powerful as Q?
• Would the process of developing those powers come with the knowledge to use them?
• Is it even possible to have enough knowledge to really know how to use Q-like powers?
• Are there people in our society that have power they didn’t earn?
I find the last question particularly interesting. Perhaps many of the things wrong with the world today are due to the fact that people have powers that they did not earn and thus do not know how to use properly—like powers to kill, or powers to communicate their stupid ideas. What would the world be like if you had to develop a power yourself before you could use it? Just as a silly example: How would the comment section on YouTube change if, to use it, you had to have the schooling necessary to have a basic understanding of how computers and the internet work? More seriously, would anyone smart enough to know how to design and build a tank, or a laser guided anti-aircraft missile, or a computer and video editing software be stupid enough to join ISIS? In fact, if such knowledge was required—would it even be possible for there to be standing armies?
It seems that Ken has become so upset about the “suffering for suffering sake” moral that he’s become a bit of a conspiracy theorist about it. Conspiracy theorists will not only ignore evidence against their favorite conspiracy, but they will see evidence of conspiracy everywhere. They will even take a lack of evidence for a conspiracy to actually be evidence of conspiracy, because “how else could the evidence of the conspiracy be so well hidden?” Consequently, conspiracy theories are unfalsifiable – they are impossible to disprove; this is part of what makes them irrational. And not only is Ken ignoring the evidence that the “suffering for suffering’s sake” moral is not the moral of this episode – Geordi and Data bonk us over the head with alternate reasons and the writers with alternate morals – but Ken simply seems to be seeing this objectionable moral everywhere. Although it is Riker’s story, and so it is to the lesson that Riker learns that we should be looking for the moral of the story, Ken admits to intentionally looking past Riker to Geordi and Data for the moral. Why? Because, it seems, if he squints he thinks he can see the dreaded “suffering for suffering’s sake” moral and complain about it.
I’m really not trying to pick on Ken. This is a common human mistake—and Ken is only human. I’ve made the same mistake myself. And, again, Ken is completely right in my opinion that the original series often did endorse the “suffering for suffering’s sake” moral—especially when Kirk would ruin utopias—and that it is a horrible moral to endorse. As the practical joke pulling Enterprise once made clear in The Animated Series, “Kirk is a jerk.” But whether or not a Next Generation episode endorses this moral remains to be seen. (It might be in third season episode “The Bonding,” but ultimately I don’t think so.) Captain Picard has already done better than Captain Kirk by leaving the scantily clad blonde jogging Edo people of Rubicon III, their society, and their Val-like protector god intact. I for one think that Ken will have a lot less to complain about in Star Trek: The Next Generation, when it comes to the endorsement of this moral—at least, if he stops making up reasons to be upset about it. But I’ll be willing to admit it if I am proven wrong.